Azerbaijan to chair Council of Europe amid climate of fear and suppression

Azerbaijan’s human rights situation remains dire as it gears up to assume the six-month chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 14 May 2014, Amnesty International said.

A court in Baku sentenced today eight NIDA youth movement activists to between six and eight years in prison on spurious charges of possessing drugs, explosives and intending to “cause public disorder”.

Police moved with force to break up peaceful NIDA supporters and journalists gathered outside of the court as the verdict was announced. Reportedly, at least 26 people, including an Azadliq newspaper reporter, have been detained by police.

“This verdict is an affront to human rights and a timely reminder of Azerbaijan’s continued refusal to respect basic freedoms,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Programme at Amnesty International.

The sentences come as foreign ministers representing the Council of Europe’s 47 member states gather at an elaborate ceremony in Vienna at the annual meeting of the Committee of Ministers. The decision-making body of the human rights institution is the guardian of the founding principles enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Azerbaijan will assume the Chairmanship from May to November 2014.

The handover of the Chairmanship coincides with the release of Amnesty International’s new report on Azerbaijan, Behind Bars: Silencing dissent in Azerbaijan, which records an increased clampdown on freedom of expression, assembly, and association following the 9 October 2013 elections. 

The report documents how harassment, beatings, and unfair trials, detention and imprisonment are routinely used in Azerbaijan to control and curb the voices of opposition parties, independent media outlets, and any other individuals critical of the government. 

“Through its Constitution and membership of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan has declared its commitment to respect and protect fundamental human rights. However, its legislation, policies and practices are testimony of its failure to live up to its national and international human rights commitments and obligations,” said Denis Krivosheev.

Controlling and curbing freedom of expression

There are at least 19 prisoners of conscience currently behind bars in Azerbaijan, solely for peacefully expressing their views. These include representatives from the NIDA youth movement, politicians, journalists, civil society activists and bloggers known for expressing critical views in social media. 

“We were always concerned about prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan and calling for their immediate and unconditional release. However, it is still more worrying that the number of individuals deprived of freedom in connection with their attempts to peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression has only increased. There seems to be a total disconnect between Azerbaijan’s declared commitments to human rights, including now as the chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, and how the government treats its own people at home,” said Denis Krivosheev.

“Individuals daring to speak out against, or merely question, those in power are met with the heavy and excessive hand of the Azerbaijani authorities. Intimidations, detention or imprisonment are fast becoming the choice responses of a regime desperate to control and punish critics and dissenting voices.”

The Azerbaijani authorities must begin to respect the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression, including by immediately and unconditionally releasing the individuals they have incarcerated for the peaceful exercise of these rights.  And the Council of Europe – its Parliamentary Assembly, its Secretary General and the Committee of Ministers itself – must begin to be more assertive in demanding this.

“Those in power continue to show an absolute disregard for any dissenting voices in Azerbaijan. The international community including members of the Council of Europe must remind Azerbaijan on all occasions of its human rights obligations. Azerbaijan must listen and respond if it is to show leadership in protecting human rights during its Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers,” said Denis Krivosheev. 

Amnesty International and activists from across Europe are gathering on 6 May from 2.00 to 3.00 o’clock outside the Chairmanship ceremony to protest against human rights abuses in Azerbaijan. They will call on Azerbaijan to take leadership as Chairman of the Committee of Ministers in protecting human rights at home and abroad. Amnesty International and activists will also call on the Committee of Ministers to urge Azerbaijan to immediately release all prisoners of conscience including NIDA activists.